The recent recognition of historical fashion icons in pop culture has inspired general wonderment as to the importance of female wardrobe in costume history. In Sofia Coppola’s version of Marie Antoinette, the costumes received much esteem from the fashion industry (a Vogue editorial), as well as the Academy (Milena Canonero won the Oscar for Best Costumes). The accurate portrayal of the Queen’s wardrobe in this historical biography has shown us a period when a French fashion icon introduced innovative ideas for women’s dress. Shortly after Marie Antoinette’s influential reign, George ‘Beau’ Brummell, was teaching men to dress in a more understated manner, known as dandyism. After watching the red carpet arrivals for the Oscars, it is overtly apparent that the interest of women’s fashion now takes priority over men.
Before the reign of Marie Antoinette, men’s fashion displayed its importance through the differentiation of social classes among the court. Tailoring was an intricate trade learned by men through an apprenticeship. Since Ms. Coco Chanel was not around yet to invent ready-to-wear, bespoke pieces were the only way for men and women to get clothing. Back then, much like today, clothing was used as a status symbol. Therefore, a man carefully selected the finest fabrics, embellishments and accessories he could afford. The wealthiest men in the court imported fabrics: silks and taffetas from Italy and wools from England. With the increased use of trade and improved methods of communication, the options for lavish embellishments used in garment construction were endless. With the onset of the Renaissance period, women began to take an interest in the luxurious imported velvets, satins, and silks and they desired unique, sumptuous garments, as well.
The female involvement in fashion originated in France where Marie Antoinette and her dressmaker, Madame Rose Bertin, were setting a higher standard for dress. The styles created by Bertin were large and conspicuous making females more prominent than the male that escorted them. Sleeve styles became shorter, with an under layer displaying various levels of lace and ruffles at the hem. These new fashions allowed European women to become more interested in the creation of their clothing. The discovery of America made it difficult for settlers to learn the newest trends from the east. American women began to lust after European magazines and fashion moppets (dolls dressed in the latest designs) that came across the ocean. Improved communication and trade across the Atlantic brought an interest in women’s fashion that outgrew that of men. Every woman who had the means began to follow the styles chosen by the Queen and Madame Bertin. During the end of the eighteenth century, Madame Bertin’s word was fashion and her iconic style status was equivalent to that of Anna Wintour.
Following the French Revolution, styles for men became simple and less extravagant than those from the previous century. Women’s clothing, on the other hand, became much more elegant, adorned, decorated, and lavish. This movement progressed with the arrival of George ‘Beau’ Brummell. Beau Brummell’s keen eye for style conceived the idea of a formal suit that is still used today. He presented a standard of dress that is focused on quality fabric and precise detail. Beau offered that a man no longer adorn his clothing with flashy, extravagant embellishments to denote social class. Instead, he should wear garments of the finest fabrics, the most intricate details, and perfect proportions. To support this movement, fabrications in men’s clothing diminished in variety. Instead, a more limited range of textiles in basic, muted colors were offered. This movement added to the trend that reversed the roles of men and women in fashion.
And so began the twentieth century. Technological advancements helped women to quickly dominate the fashion industry. With the inventions of the sewing machine, department stores, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar, women’s reformation was at the forefront of the economy. Lead foremost by the need to recreate women’s dress to accommodate the additional activities and endeavors women were undertaking. Since women now began to participate in such activities as horseback riding and tennis, new ensembles needed to be designed to accommodate this active lifestyle. These early feminists created the first women’s pant, known as bloomers. Thus, the newly female dominated industry began to boom.
Cue Charles Frederick Worth, the first French courtier. Women of means were spending large sums of money for pieces by the French dress designer. Having set a precedent, many other dress designers followed. Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel, and Elsa Schiaparelli all followed Worth’s lead creating a very prosperous and lucrative industry. With the further advancement of technology used in the production of garments, these early dress makers paved the way for hundreds of designers all over the world.
With the onset of another new century, and a new millennium for that matter, men’s fashion continues to take a backseat to that of the ladies. However dominating, the industry has begun to accommodate the menswear collections. Additionally, bespoke menswear designers are becoming more popular as economic times grow to create a more conservative and sullen mood. The style concepts contrived by Marie Antoinette and Charles Frederick Worth are learning to coexist with the conservative ideas of Beau Brummell. Although men, with the exception of Prince, may never revisit the lavish and decorated styles of the Gothic period, a focus is returning to the exquisite detail and quality fabrications for gentleman of today. Continuing the current trend of female domination, it may take an additional two hundred years for men to regain the fashion throne.